Reading as a Spiritual Practice and Its Limitations

While Sri Aurobindo created an enormous body of written materials regarding the integral yoga, the development of the next phase of consciousness growth in the earth-evolution, he also clearly recognized that there are limits to how much reading can aid the spiritual seeker. He made a clear distinction between mental and emotional development that can be supported by reading, and the experience of spiritual states of consciousness which develop within, and which are, at most, only tangentially influenced by reading and mental development, and at worst, can be impeded by either over-reliance on the mental processes, or by the seeker being misled in believing that mental processes are actually spiritual processes.

Reading may increase an individual’s understanding of the external world and help him to see the illusions of our interpretations of sense data, such as understanding the rotation of the world and travel through space versus our perception that the sun revolves around the earth. Similarly, reading may help one understand the complex interaction of the various aspects of our being and may help us also train and develop the powers that are unformed or latent within the being.

Reading of devotional literature may prepare the heart to enter into a state of consecration and aspiration.

Reading of mantric writings may, if practiced with the correct attitude and focus, bring about changes in the inner vibrational state. Similarly reading with a quiet and receptive mind of writing that evokes higher planes of conscious awareness may lead the individual to the edge of experience.

In the end, however, it is the spiritual experience, the actual change of consciousness, the reception of higher spiritual vibratory patterns into the being, that actually counts as spirituality, not a high mental or emotional development.

Reading may actually turn out to be a distraction from the sadhana if it is focused on entertainment, titillation of the mind and senses, awakening of energies that stem from the lower vital level of the being, or simply matters that bring down the energy into a gross, external, dull or vital atmosphere.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “Reading good books can be of help in the early mental stage — they prepare the mind, put it in the right atmosphere, can even, if one is very sensitive, bring some glimpses of realisation on the mental plane. Afterwards the utility diminishes — you have to find every knowledge and experience in yourself.”

“Yes, the real knowledge comes of itself from within by the touch of the Divine. Reading can be only a momentary help to prepare the mind. But the real knowledge does not come by reading. Some preparation for the inner knowledge may be helpful — but the mind should not be too superficially active or seek to know only for curiosity’s sake.”

“To read what will help the yoga or what will be useful for the work or what will develop the capacities for the divine purpose. Not to read worthless stuff or for mere entertainment or for a dilettante intellectual curiosity which is of the nature of a mental dram-drinking. When one is established in the highest consciousness, one can read nothing or everything; it makes no difference — but that is still far off.”

“One can say generally that newspaper reading or novel reading is not helpful to the sadhana and is at least a concession to the vital which is not yet ready to be absorbed in the sadhana — unless and until one is able to read in the right way with a higher consciousness which is not only not ‘disturbed’ by the reading or distracted by it from the concentrated yoga-consciousness but is able to make the right use of what is read from the point of view of the inner consciousness and the inner life.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 12, Other Aspects of Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Mental Development, Reading and Study, pp. 361-365

Intellectual Understanding and Understanding in the Consciousness

Those who find their basis primarily in the mind tend to believe that their intellectual understanding of something represents something real and definitive and that their “knowing” means they “know” something. This is however, not quite accurate. For instance, one can read books and “know” about a particular activity or process but nevertheless be unable to fully comprehend all the subtlety or complexity that only becomes clear through experience and inner review. There is also the famous statement that reading about swimming does not mean one can swim when one enters the water.

Yoga is not dependent on an intellectual understanding of the processes or steps along the way. It is a matter of inner experiential understanding that may not correspond to the mental formations that develop as one studies books or hears lectures on the subject. It is one of the great distinguishing factors between academic learning and real life experience.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “… There are two kinds of understanding — understanding by the intellect and understanding in the consciousness. It is good to have the former if it is accurate, but it is not indispensable. Understanding by the consciousness comes if there is faith and openness, though it may come only gradually and through steps of experience. But I have seen people without education or intellectuality understand in this way perfectly well the course of the yoga in themselves, while intellectual men make big mistakes, e.g. take a neutral mental quietude for the spiritual peace and refuse to come out of it in order to go farther.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 12, Other Aspects of Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Mental Development, Reading and Study, pp. 361-365